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  • The Persistence of Empire. British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution
  • Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
Eliga Gould, The Persistence of Empire. British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

Eliga Gould sets out to explain how the British government attempted to persuade “the metropolitan public” of the validity of the imperial policies that provoked the American Revolution and the decision to wage war in North America. He contends that the “government had to maintain at least the appearance of popular approval” and to justify its actions (p.vii).

He dismisses the traditional view that the decision to raise a direct tax in British America was a sign that the metropolitan government was treating Americans differently from the British. He suggests, on the contrary, that “the metropolitan proponents of Parliamentary taxation understood the issue in exactly the opposite way, that is, as a vehicle for incorporating people who enjoyed the full rights of British subjections into the national system of revenue as it existed in Britain.” The British viewed the colonies as “a unitary state uniformly subject to Parliament’s unlimited authority. (p.26). Even the opposition parties subscribed to parliamentary supremacy: the Rockinghams who later became leading opponents of Lord North had passed the Declaratory Act (1766). For most of the political nation “what sealed the case for colonial taxation was the widespread belief that . . . surrendering Parliament’s fiscal rights in Massachusetts and Virginia would set a dangerous precedent for the government of English settlers in places as scattered as Ireland, Jamaica and Bengal” (p.142). The American Revolution “had its origins in a failed attempt to complete the integration of a Greater British nation” (p. xviii).

This concept of an enlarged British identity, which included Americans and West Indians, was partly a consequence of popular recognition of the growing importance of trade and empire especially following the Seven Years War. Pitt’s ability to maintain “extraparlaimentary support once he was in office also suggested that a war for trade and empire could be popular to a degree that the Hanoverian regime’s involvement in Europe never had been. As a result the Seven Years’ War ended up consolidating the relationship between imperialism and domestic popularity in ways that lasted long after Pitt’s resignation in 1761” (p.70). Britain showed increasingly less interest in continental entanglements despite crises like France’s annexation of Corsica (1768) and the partition of Poland (1772). The empire was regarded as a crucial source of British national power and wealth. A major argument in favor of war against America was that the loss of America would lead to the dismemberment of the British Empire and to the decline of Britain.

Gould does not attempt an analysis of popular opinion during the American War. He instead implicitly suggests that the government was largely successful in its attempts to win popular approval. Enough opponents “remained silent or muted their criticism to give the government’s supporters the rhetorical advantage at least until the spring of 1780” (p. 152). Even at the height of the Gordon Riots and the county association movement in 1780, the opposition was unable to prevent the government from winning the election of that summer and continuing the war. Although Christopher Wyvill and his associates appeared to speak for the majority of the political nation “for a few months during the spring of 1780,” public outrage quickly subsided and left the government “in a domestic position at least as strong as it had occupied over the previous five years” The “most prominent feature of the county association movement was its sheer brevity” (p.164).

A book of such scope will undoubtedly cause much debate. Gould’s notion of a British identity that incorporated Americans and West Indians does not accord with those who argue that Americans were increasingly identified separately as “Americans” in newspapers and in literary works in Britain. American visitors to Britain found it difficult to gain access to the establishment and encountered widespread ignorance about America. Their inferiority was implied by imperial policies, like the trade and navigation acts, which treated colonies as subordinate...

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